Women in Bloom: Georgia O’Keeffe and The Sublime
Women in Bloom: Georgia O’Keeffe and The Sublime
Having opened at the beginning of July, the Tate Modern’s first exhibition since its £260 million renovation has been dedicated to a reassessment of Georgia O’Keeffe. It is also the first time in twenty years that a comprehensive display of O’Keeffe’s work has been enacted in the UK. With over 100 artworks spanning six decades, the Tate invites us to properly look at one of America’s greatest painters. Her grand, swooping abstractions of flowers have more often than not been derided as emblematic of the female anatomy. Indeed, I remember recreating a number of her vivid floral paintings with pastel and chalk during my GCSEs, only for friends to ask if I realised I had been repeatedly drawing vaginas. Multiply this dismay by a thousand and one can only hope to come close to the frustration O’Keeffe must have felt when posed with such questions.
In a bid to dispel these assumptions about O’Keeffe, the exhibition has been assembled to reflect more broadly on how her work dealt with particular themes across the 20th century. Modernism, sensuality and cityscapes are but a few of the thematic approaches touched upon throughout the exhibition’s chronology. The most striking of these groupings is O’Keeffe’s output when relocating to New Mexico. Several visits from 1929 onwards ignited an interest in the area that would result in a tremendous impact on both her personal and professional life:
“When I got to New Mexico that was mine. As soon as I saw it that was my country. I’d never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly. It’s something that’s in the air – it’s different. The sky is different, the wind is different. I shouldn’t say too much about it because other people may be interested and I don’t want them interested.”
New Mexico undoubtedly provided a stark contrast to the New York O’Keeffe had inhabited on and off for 20 years. The Southwestern climate and vegetation made possible an entirely new palette from which she could paint with. The rich, earthy tones that populate this period exude the heat of America’s deserted landscape. Away from the prying New York art scene, O’Keeffe was able to experiment more freely with materials and subject matter. It was this sublime environment that transformed O’Keeffe into something greater than the ‘mother of American modernism’. Although the sublime is often associated with Romanticism and aesthetic ideals from that era, I would argue that O’Keeffe’s work – particularly during her residence in New Mexico – also pertains a quietly assured grandeur and transcendence. Just as John Martin and J.M.W. Turner painted emotionally-charged responses to Britain’s landscapes, so, too, did O’Keeffe. While hers perhaps lacked terror and unease, I think that they exhibit an intensity beyond human comprehension.
By combining her early synaesthetic pieces (influenced greatly by Wassily Kandinsky’s own responses to music) with the expansive country plains, O’Keeffe produced works such as Rust Red Hills (1930), Pedernal (1945) and From the River – Pale (1959). These oil paintings transport you to another place; whether they more explicitly depict the far-reaching terrains of New Mexico or feature abstract strokes of colours bleeding into one another, they enclose the spectator in a bubble of contemplation. I find Sky Above Clouds IV (1965) to be particularly evocative of this sensation. Dotted across a blue background like an erupted packet of marshmallows, one may think of anything from views seen outside the window of an airplane to floating calmly in a swimming pool. Just as O’Keeffe found solace in a largely solitary existence, so does the viewer of her artworks.
The possibility of finding solace in the newly revamped Tate Modern seems virtually unimaginable, especially during the summer holidays. However, the gallery’s Switch House extension does provide a ten-storey labyrinth of modern and contemporary art to get lost in. In conjunction with the expansion, there has been a conscious effort to include work by artists outside Europe and North America, as well as women. Director of the Tate, Sir Nicholas Serota has spoken enthusiastically about a collection that is more “international, diverse and engaging”. Still, this does not mean that all battles have been won. Tate Modern’s recently appointed director, Frances Morris, has made clear that,“you can rewrite history but you can’t reinvent it. We are highlighting the great contributions of women but there is an imbalance in the history.”
This imbalance is a definite focal point for other British galleries who have opened or announced all-women shows throughout this year. The Saatchi gallery showcased the works of fourteen up and coming women in “Champagne Life”, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art displayed pieces by Scottish women in “Modern Scottish Women | Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965” and the Guerrilla Girls are having their first dedicated exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery from October. While the British art world seems to be taking notice of gender equality within its collections and upon its walls, one wonders if this is happening globally. One example is “Gallery Tally”, a project that featured various works revealing dismal statistics about the realities of women on display versus men, which was on at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions earlier this year. Despite this project, the number of collectives challenging these exact ideas and private collectors who spend decades piecing together succinct overviews of work by women, the Tate Modern remains distinctive.
The retrospective on O’Keeffe not only heralds a new era for the gallery, but it also draws attention to the 36% of women whose work is on display and how millions more visitors will have access to it. Like the awe-inspiring extent of earth covered in O’Keeffe’s paintings, the Switch House symbolises an expansion of representation. There is plenty of room to breathe without labels as constricting and overbearing as “femininity” and “sexuality”. In many ways, the Switch House also brings to mind the sublime quality of O’Keeffe’s art. Positioned behind its columnar sibling, the twisted pyramid shape offers a grand body of artwork within, while presenting itself as an impressive construction among the apartment blocks populating the river’s south side. It may not be New Mexico, but it certainly invites audiences to question their surroundings and connect with modern art.
Perhaps we should think of how O’Keeffe translated her visions into paintings in order to consider an environment like the Tate Modern and the opportunities it posits:
“I wish you could see what I see out the windows – the earth pink and yellow cliffs to the north – the full pale moon about to go down in an early morning lavender sky behind a very long beautiful tree-covered mesa to the west – pink and purple hills in front and the scrubby fine dull green cedars – and a feeling of much space – It is a very beautiful world.”
Written by Victoria Rodrigues O’Donnell,
“Georgia O’Keeffe” at The Tate Modern runs until 30 October